With 19 million families in the UK, parents possess a spending power to be reckoned with and are a prime target for brands in almost every consumer category. The result is a deluge of cookie-cutter advertising in which the roles played by parents are used as shorthand to tell consumers "this product is for you".
Parents don’t need advertisers to remind them that they have children – in fact, it jars to see a person’s reproductive status used to sell them cars, fast food, and detergent.
In the wake of the ASA’s recent ruling against gender stereotypes in advertising, isn’t it time for us to rethink the way we’re approaching this large and economically significantly group of people, and to stop reflecting distorted versions of parenthood back to customers?
The complaints figures over the last few years would suggest that change is long overdue. Asda’s 2012 Christmas ad, featuring an exhausted mother doing all the work, prompted 620 complaints.
The previous year, Littlewoods drummed up 456 after a spot in which small children sang about how their mothers – not Santa – bought all the presents.
These are the obvious offenders when it comes to stereotypes, but they’re far from the only ones. The protagonist for Dettol’s recent ad for disinfectant spray is ostensibly "the pillow everyone loves," but it’s hard to miss the fact that it also features a woman changing a baby’s nappy, then preparing food, and then feeding a baby while her male partner coughs and sniffles in the foreground before, eventually, spraying the pillow clean.
This situation is complicated by the sheer range of stereotypes that persist, particularly for mothers.
There’s the "perfect mum", pointedly sent up in Baby Dove’s 2017 campaign, and representing the largest and easiest target for consumer ire.
There’s the closely related "selfless mum", beloved of Procter & Gamble’s Olympics campaigns, who works tirelessly to support and nurture world-beating athletes.
And, of course, there’s "stressed, sleep-deprived, covered in bodily fluids and has no life anymore mum", who made her TV debut circa 2012 with Fiat’s Motherhood rap.
Sometimes this creative work is funny, shareable, even tear-jerking. Sometimes it’s offensive and infuriating. Either way, it reveals some of the deeply embedded cultural blind spots and clichés that advertising can perpetrate.
While overt stereotypes can negatively affect consumers’ perceptions of those brands, the bigger issue, as the ASA said in its Depictions, Perceptions and Harm research last summer, is the way in which these stock characters can actively restrict the aspirations of the people with whom they’re trying to engage.
Our industry’s obsession with pen portraits and generalisations can have a dangerous, flattening effect. One survey found that 91% of women feel that advertisers don’t understand them. Another found that fewer than one-in-five Millennial parents in the US think ads accurately portray dads and their kids.
The advertisers that get it right are the ones which understand the simple fact that parents need brands to be useful: to help to fix something, or to offer value to their day-to-day lives.
While there’s no simple formula for success, the most effective work shows real and nuanced understanding of an audience, without straying into caricature.
Pampers’ "Pooface" campaign struck a chord with families everywhere, without showing a single parent.
Marmite’s "Gene Project" managed to incorporate diverse family narratives into genuinely funny creative, which still landed the core product truth.
Marks & Spencer is possibly the ultimate mum brand, and its "Spend It Well" campaign includes a baby, a mother, a daughter – but it’s playful and empowering.
HSBC’s new "Global Citizen" ad, fronted by Richard Ayoade, appeals to people who have children without being patronising.
There are times when depicting mums, dads, and families in creative work is the right solution. But we need to be wary of using stock characters as a substitute for real and meaningful understanding of the people we’re trying to reach.
For some, the ASA’s ruling is likely to necessitate a profound (and uncomfortable) shift in how they think about their audiences, and the ways in which they tell stories.
As gender politics move to centre stage in the public consciousness, brands should embrace this as a watershed moment, an opportunity to challenge status quos and received wisdom.
The move away from the familiar ground of observations, and homogenous demographic portraits might feel daunting, but it also opens a world of possibility for exciting, effective work; work that stops talking to fictional Mums and Dads, and starts seeing parents as real people.
Jen Cownie is senior strategic planner at TMW Unlimited